Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby, originally released in 2020, may be the most uncomfortable film that I have ever utterly enjoyed. It is nominally a comedy, but while it does contains plenty that is funny – sometimes gloriously so – it also feels rather like helplessly watching somebody else’s panic attack.
Danielle (Rachel Sennott) is close to graduation from university with a vaguely defined liberal arts degree. We first encounter her having sex with her sugar daddy Max (Danny Deferrari), before she rushes to attend a shiva with her parents (Fred Melamed and Polly Draper). Within minutes Danielle finds herself struggling with her parents’ constant thoughtless criticisms, the presence of an ex-girlfriend (Molly Gordon), and finally the unexpected arrival of Max – along with his wife and child Danielle knew nothing about.
Shiva Baby is a small independent film. Once Danielle reaches the house where the shiva is being held, we never leave it for the rest of the film. It is intimate to the point of being suffocating. It traps the viewer with a flawed protagonist making the latest in what is clearly a long trail of poor life choices, and it refuses to either let up or even offer a proper moment of catharsis. It is deeply funny, in a spiky and appalling way.
A lot has been written about Ariel Marx’s sparse, string-filled musical score, which clearly resembles music for a horror film. It is not simply the music: everything in the film – the photography, the restricted point of view, and the tense mise-en-scene – uses the tools of the horror film to express one young woman’s particular nightmare. It is marvellously done. It is clever, inventive, and tremendously effective. It is effective because – and I feel this is important to emphasise – Shiva Baby is a great comedy. It is genuinely funny in all sorts of small, delicate, easily recognisable ways.
There is a much-needed realism that underpins the events as they occur and develop. Based solely on its premise, Shiva Baby could easily be the most cringe-worthy of sub-sitcom farces. While the setup is absurd, the characters’ interactions and the effect they have on each other is very realistic.
Rachel Sennott does a spectacular job in the lead, generating great sympathy for Danielle’s plight. Molly Gordon is likewise very easily relatable as Maya, with whom Danielle once shared an undefined, possibly closeted relationship. The film seems as if it has great authenticity of both bisexual and Jewish identity, and yet the various characters and interactions have a way of feeling close to universal. It is remarkable that a feature so crisply structured, scripted, and framed is the work of a debut director.